PITTSFIELD >> Every year Christmas seems to start earlier and earlier. Big retailers deck the aisles before foliage season even begins, and folks are urged to buy early and beat the rush. But the sterile look of artificial trees are lit up in September, and the mercenary attempts to get shoppers to part with their dollars before the latest in fashions and toys are gone, hardly seems Christmas-like.
For many, the true meaning of Christmas, the birth of a Savior, is enhanced by a little snow on the ground, the aroma of a fresh-cut tree, the excitement in the eyes of a child, and so many of the wonderful family traditions soon to be experienced once again. But the glue that holds these special memories together, and creates its own unforgettable memories, is the music of the season.
Bing and Christmas
Around our home, the tree gets decorated only after Bing Crosby sings "White Christmas." Cookie baking requires a little Perry Como or Johnny Mathis, and the Celtic Women sound incredible while just quietly listening and admiring the newly decked out tree.
As a youngster we had a 78 RPM record player with a tin foil speaker right above the needle, which always seemed to need replacement. We had two Bing Crosby 78s, "Silent Night" with "Adeste Fideles" on the flip side, and "White Christmas," which bit the dust when it was dropped. And of course we had Gene Autry singing "Rudolph" and one of those smaller, red-colored children's records of "Frosty The Snowman." No automatic changer on our old clunker, we'd take turns putting on a new song after every playing. I can still hear the clickety sound when the record was finished but continued to turn and turn until the arm was lifted.
By the time I was in the seventh grade at good old St. Joe, my big request for Christmas was a new record player. That was significant because I knew it meant no trains! Santa delivered on my wish and bought me a small, portable, three-speed player with on/off and volume control. Wow! A new era was born. I could play unbreakable 45s and those new long-playing albums with six songs on a side.
With Christmas approaching a couple of years later, I had decided to purchase the four-record set of Bing Crosby Christmas songs. I went into the Melody House on West Street where Judy Roan, the owner's daughter, convinced me to buy the long-play recording with 12 songs. Sound advice, pun intended!
There was a new song on the LP, "Christmas in Killarney," which really caught my fancy. I would play it over and over.
"The door is always open, the neighbors pay a call
And Father John, before he's gone, will bless the house and all."
Little did I realize what that line would one day mean to me. My grandmother, Mary Clark Ryan, came from a large Dalton family. One brother, PJ, founded Clark's Market. Another brother, John, became a priest, later Monsignor in Bergen County, New Jersey. Indeed, right after we had moved from Union Street to South Church Street, Fr. John came to visit Grandma, and make a special trip over to bless our new home. The story, though, is not complete.
It was a few years later that Fr. John was being honored on the 50th anniversary of his priesthood. My parents went down to New Jersey for the festivities and came back with a story I will never forget.
James Cavenaugh, one of the writers of "Christmas in Killarney," was guest speaker and an old friend. He told the gathering that it was Fr. John Clark who was the "Fr. John" in the song and dedicated it to him. My mother came home and the first words out of her mouth were, "Hey, you know that song you play about Killarney every Christmas...?" Henceforth, it would be played with even more special meaning and more than a wee bit of pride.
And now to Christmas a year ago. I was at the Wahconah Country Club Christmas party sitting with my friend John Enright, and as two Irishmen are wont to do, we began singing. John asked if I knew the words to "Christmas in Killarney," and I told him the story of the lad from Dalton, my great uncle, for whom it was written. Of course I knew the words! And boy O boy did we belt that one out; everybody that knew it joined in. When we finished, John in his inimitable style spoke up: "Henry, set up the bar. We're going to toast Fr. John Clark, a fine Dalton lad."
Sadly, John Enright passed away earlier this year, but he left me with a new Christmas memory, and even greater meaning of "Christmas in Killarney."